Ronny Elliott,
(Blue Heart, 2008)

It's sometimes said the American 1950s began in the late 1940s and ended in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. That 1950s is Ronny Elliott's time and country. Beatniks, ex-pats, Red Scares, stag films, pinups, car races, now-forgotten pro-wrestling stars and oldies bands crowd his memory and imagination. Elliott and I, who are about the same age, grew up in that nation in which, while it hardly represented a golden age, significant discoveries were made, experiments attempted and lessons learned. It's still a fascinating place because it helped give birth to new ways of living in the world. In the wretchedly violent and corrupt years of this fresh century, one looks around and senses everything that was good about that time feels vanished, while the unwholesome remainder stalks us vengefully.

As I hear him, that's how Elliott feels, only he says it more eloquently than I can, and he sings evocatively, and I can't carry a note. His voice -- in the literal sense -- is wry, regretful, leathery and perfect for the task at hand. "This is not my century," he both recites and sings, "and neither was the last," though I find the first assertion more persuasive than the second. Elliott's melodies are based in elemental folk and rock, also suited to his distinctive sensibility.

Jalopypaint is his ninth album, but it's only the second I've heard. The other is the fiercely compelling Hep (Blue Heart, 2003), graced with "Slim Harpo's Heartbeat," "Jack's St. Pete Blues," "Elvis Presley Didn't Like Tampa" and "Gorgeous George" -- all more or less iconic '50s figures ("Jack" being Kerouac) whom the Tampa-based Elliott recreates with proper appreciation but with a notable originality of vision and a sobering absence of sentimentality.

Barely a trace of sentimentality ever shades Elliott's vision, but if one is to be discerned, it's in Jalopypaint's otherwise biting opener "Red Rumor Blues." That song returns to the ugly days of the early to mid '50s when Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R., Wis.), a full-blown sociopath, chased imaginary Soviet spies (the real ones -- e.g., Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White -- having been exposed during the Truman administration several years before) through the ranks of intellectuals, writers, teachers, scientists, musicians and other free-thinking sorts. The song itself renders the story with reasonable accuracy. In the spoken intro, however, Elliott commits a careless factual error: McCarthy, who was after all a senator, headed not, as he puts it, the "House Un-American Activities Commission" (sic; Committee) but the Senate Permanent Committee on Investigations.

After the song has concluded, Elliott recites the names of some well-known Red Scare victims. As it happens, not everybody accused of being a Communist was not a Communist, and I wonder if principled liberal Arthur Miller, were he alive, would appreciate being spoken of in the same breath as unrepentant Stalinist Lillian Hellman. It is true, of course, that the McCarthy era blacklist was an abomination from any point of view, and nobody whose name Elliott recalls was guilty of espionage, though it can be fairly said that anybody who believed Josef Stalin to be a benefactor to humanity was phenomenally stupid.

This diversion into grousing ought not to deter you from acquainting yourself with Elliott's singing, songwriting and sensibility, not quite like anybody else's. Elliott has lived longer and thought harder than all but a select few of the guitar-strumming, piano-tinkling competition. Rooted in history, memory, and experience, his songs go where few dare -- or possess the brains and creativity -- to travel. Even then, they rarely go where you think they're heading. And they stick in your head, and you carry them with you.

Elliott's point of view may be skeptical, but it is never cynical. It's always engaged with its subject and with life's circumstances, tragic or merely lamentable, in general. If none of Jalopypaint's songs quite measure up to the finest and most memorable ones on Hep, that's only because Elliott is so good that his only competition is himself. He suffers the misfortune, sadly, of being in that class of great living American songwriters unheard by Americans. An America that listened to Ronny Elliott would surely be a better country.

review by
Jerome Clark

2 August 2008

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